Merlene Davis: Family histories revealed 'Entangled Lives'

Ann Neel, left, and Pam Smith will present a program at Berea College that was born out of a chance meeting of genealogical detectives.
Ann Neel, left, and Pam Smith will present a program at Berea College that was born out of a chance meeting of genealogical detectives.

For years, professor Ann Neel has been researching slave-holding families in the Randolph County area of Missouri, where she was born.

When Chicago's Pam Smith learned in 1990 that one of her ancestors had lived in that same area of Missouri, she called the courthouse there to find more information. A clerk told her to talk to Neel.

When she did, the two women began forging a relationship that would take them through the highs and lows of race relations in the United States on a very personal basis.

For a year, they shared information by phone, growing closer as friends rather than simply colleagues with a shared love of history and genealogy. That was the high.

Then, about two years after the women became friends, Smith visited Missouri and discovered that a member of Neel's family had owned Smith's maternal great-great-grandfather. That was the low.

"The next time she called, she said, 'Ann, your family owned my family,'" Neel recalled. "I was devastated just like she was."

The tie to Neel's family was thin — the brother of a second wife of her ancestor — but it was a connection that brought home a painful reality for Smith.

"I think intellectually I knew it wasn't Ann herself who owned my ancestors," said Smith, a project management and communications consultant for non-profit organizations. "But it brought me face-to-face with a descendant of the family that did do that. It was a jolt for me. I wasn't expecting this connection."

That discovery changed their relationship. For a while, the two women communicated only by letters and poetry.

The women still had never met face-to-face.

Before leaving for a teaching excursion in Africa less than a year later, Smith visited her mother who lived in Portland, Ore. Neel, who at the time was professor emeritus at the University of Puget Sound in Washington, asked her to make time for the two to meet and she did.

"We went into my study and talked for three hours," Neel said. "I taped the conversation because I do research. She thought that was a little weird."

But it turned out to be a good thing.

Upon learning of her relationship with Smith, a friend of Neel's who worked at the University of Idaho asked if both women would give a talk at the university for Black History Month.

Neel had the three-hour conversation transcribed, sent it to Smith who edited it down, and the two women used that as their jumping off point for the presentation.

It was the beginnings of an interracial dialogue they have continued to share publicly. They were doing what a lot of people in the United States don't do — they were exploring race relations personally.

Since the early 1990s, the two women have been appearing together, peeling back the layers of bandages that had hidden but not healed the wounds of slavery and this country's inability to reconcile race relations.

Their presentation, "Entangled Lives: A Conversation Between Descendants of 'Master' and 'Enslaved,'" comes to Berea College on April 20.

They will explore the emotional impact of our interconnected racial past, as well as offer advice on beginning your own family history search.

"It kind of takes a commitment to stay at the table, to be open and honest and saying what you really feel," Smith said. "Ann is kind of in a different category from others who don't know and are not interested in discovering (interracial communication). That helped a lot. I knew where she was coming from and knew where her heart is."

Neel, who now teaches a course on the Jim Crow era in California, said the two women received a grant that allowed them to give their presentation 10 times in Missouri where their interrelated stories began.

"It was hard, but it was very, very interesting," Neel said.

The organizations that ask them to speak are encouraged to have a coalition of black and whites willing to discuss race and our connections.

"We are all connected and carry with us parts of the past and our heritage," Neel said.

They call the presentation "evolving" because they sometimes discover new things.

For example, a few years ago, the women learned they also have a blood relative in common on Smith's father's side dating to when both families were in Virginia 10 generations ago before migrating westward.

The women will be in Berea for three days to talk with students and faculty at a luncheon on April 19, as well as the community presentation on April 20, said Sharyn Mitchell, president of the African-American Genealogy Group of Kentucky. The organization is one of the event's sponsors.

Both women, she said, have connections to Kentucky.

Neel has a connection with Madison County through the Barnes family, Mitchell said.

"Barnes Mill Road is named for her people," Mitchell said. "Her family lived next door to mine, so we will explore that while she is here."

Smith recently met with descendants of the Wallace family of Louisville who had owned members of another line of her family.

"I had dinner with them outside of Lexington," she said. "It is an ongoing journey."

In Berea, the women will give advice for the rest of us to start our own journeys to discover how our lives are interconnected.

If you need a place to start, Mitchell said all are welcome to join her group, which meets on the third Saturday of each month at various locations. Visit for more information.

"Everybody in America should be able to answer the question, 'Where did my family come from?'" Smith said.

She said she is fond of a quote by the late author and film producer Michael Crichton: "If you don't know history, then you don't know anything. You are a leaf that doesn't know it is part of a tree."

"We need to start paying more attention to history and the consequences of history," Smith said.

If you go

"Entangled Lives: A Conversation Between Descendants of 'Master' and 'Enslaved'"

What: Ann Neel and Pam Smith discuss how they learned of their families' slavery-era connections through genealogy and the impact of those on their relationships today.

When: 1 p.m. April 20

Where: Carter G. Woodson Center of Interracial Education, Berea College, Berea

Cost: Free

Information: Visit or call (502) 682-5082.